Morocco: The Small Oasis Town Leading the Fight Against Water Privatisation

16 February 2024

For over 100 days, residents of Figuig in Morocco have been protesting plans to allow a private company to manage the delivery of drinking water.

For over three months now, crowds have been taking to the streets of the small oasis town of Figuig in eastern Morocco to protest proposed water privatisation. Every Tuesday and Friday, residents of all generations have united to demand that water remain a public good and kept affordable for all.

The demonstrations began in November 2023 after the municipal council approved a motion to allow a private company, Al Sharq Distribution Group, to manage the town's drinking water. The councillors in favour narrowly outnumbered those against, 9 to 8, in a vote that, curiously, came just days after the same council had unanimously voted against the proposal.

Residents fearing that privatisation could lead to higher water prices immediately organised demonstrations that have continued, twice weekly, ever since. The demonstrations have seen particularly strong participation from women, several hundreds - if not thousands - of whom led a women's march in January 2024.

At the start of the movement, people boycotted the local market to show their discontent. More recently, numerous households in the town of around 11,000 inhabitants have stopped paying their water bills in protest, according to local activists.

Mustapha Yahia, a member of the municipal council and the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), in the city's opposition, was among those who voted against the privatisation plan. He told African Arguments that Figuig is notable for the fact that the council has been in charge of the management of the drinking water for decades. He said that he does not know why the council held a second vote on the motion just days after it had comprehensively defeated it in a first. He said that all nine councillors who voted in favour, at the second time of asking, belong to the governing National Rally of Independents (RNI), though four of their colleagues also voted against.

The RNI came into office in September 2021 and is regarded as pro-business and economically liberal. Its leader, Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch, is one of Morocco's best-known businessmen and one of Africa's wealthiest individuals with an estimated $1.6 billion net worth. He is CEO of Akwa Group, a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate with interests in oil, gas, and chemicals.

His administration intends to radically reform the distribution of water, electricity and sanitation in Morocco by supporting the creation of "regional multi-service companies" to manage these services. The vote in Figuig has been presented as an application of a law passed in June 2023 that forms part of this proposed overhaul.

The government says the reforms will modernise service delivery. Critics say the changes will see the transfer of valuable public infrastructure into private hands.

In Figuig, water is a matter of survival. For centuries, the inhabitants of what was once a regional trading centre have learnt to adapt to scarce resources. Living deep in the Sahara desert, they have developed innovative methods of irrigating land in this delicate oasis.

In recent years, however, Figuig has faced growing challenges. Dams and water tables have depleted amid low and unpredictable rainfall across the country, dealing a heavy blow to local agriculture. Meanwhile, locals have found themselves caught in the crossfire of hostility between Morocco and neighbouring Algeria, whose border surrounds Figuig on three sides. That border has officially been closed by Algeria since 1994 after it was blamed by the Moroccan government for a terrorist attack in Marrakech and had visas imposed on its nationals.

Following Rabat's normalisation of relations with Israel in December 2020, tensions escalated again. In March 2021, Moroccan farmers who had continued to cross the border to cultivate dates just a few kilometres away were suddenly expelled, leading to protests in Figuig. A few months later, in August, Algeria ended diplomatic relations with Morocco.

"Historically, a lot of land has already been taken away from the people of Figuig," says Samira Mizbar, a socio-economist from the region. "They were dispossessed of their land. Now we want to dispossess them of the management of drinking water, knowing that the drinking water network was created, financed by the people of the oasis. We tell these people 'what you have created, you have to give it to a company'. It's not even to the state - it's a direct transfer of goods to a company whose goal is to make a profit."

Many fear that if the situation worsens, the population, which has already experienced successive waves of emigration, might continue to decline and the city simply disappear.

Since November, the movement in Figuig has received support from advocacy groups such as CADTM and ATTAC Maroc, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), and opposition figures like Nabila Mounib of the Socialist Unified Party (PSU). On 24 December, a national committee was set up to support the Figuig protesters. Its founding communiqué demanded that the current water management remain unchanged. It requested that the state provide drinkable water from other locations in order to prevent the exhaustion of the waterbed and that it build more desalination plants.

"The right to water is an inalienable right protected under international law," says Abdellah Lefnatsa, an AMDH activist, trade unionist, and former General Secretary of the National Drinking Water Federation (FNEP). "I have always fought against the commodification of water and denounced the directives of international institutions which aim to subject drinking water to the law of the market and therefore to deprive the majority of the population of their right to food and hygiene."

He sees the Figuig protests as part of much larger movement in Morocco that is pushing back against policies that they see as prioritising the profits of corporations over the wellbeing of ordinary citizens.

So far, neither local authorities nor the government have responded to protesters' demands in Figuig. Security forces are, however, present at mobilisations and have attempted to limit attendance at times. In early February, a group heading to the town of Bouarfa, the capital of Figuig Province, intending to talk to regional authorities, was prevented from making the journey. Social movements are not unusual in Morocco and have multiplied since the birth of the February 20 Movement, which launched nationwide protests in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring and instilled a culture of protest. However, several have been eventually met with repression, especially after popular pressure has diminished.

On 14 February, authorities arrested Mohamed Brahmi (aka MoVo), one of the leading figures of the movement in Figuig, following a complaint from a local official. The previous day, a female resident at a march had accused the official of having pushed her violently. Protesters, including Brahmi, expressed support for her. The woman was also briefly detained but, unlike Brahmi, released pending trial.

Brahmi's arrest is unlikely to lead people back to their homes and may galvanise the movement. When Brahmi was taken into custody, hundreds gathered outside the local police station with some even spending the night outside. Several activists there insisted on the peaceful nature of the movement and asked people to remain calm and mobilised. "Stay assured, Mofo, we will continue the struggle," they chanted.

Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance journalist focusing on protest movements and human rights issues in Morocco and Algeria.

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